Why the Russian constitution matters: the dark arts of constitutional law

Speaker: Professor William Partlett (University of Melbourne)

ConvenorsDr Zbig Wojnowski (REES, St Antony's) & Dr Marnie Howlett (REES, Nuffield)

Professor Partlett's forthcoming book challenges the conventional view that Russia's Constitution is a sham.  It will show instead that this constitution is a critical foundation of Russian authoritarianism today that carries important broader lessons for the world. 

In the ruins of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin—with the full backing of the West—dabbled in the ‘dark arts’ of constitutional law by centralising vast constitutional power in the office of the president in the 1993 Russian Constitution.  This presidential centralisation was justified as necessary to ensure stability while being limited by extensive constitutional rights guarantees. President Vladimir Putin has since disregarded these rights provisions and fully exploited this centralised authority to rebuild Russian authoritarianism.

The Russian experience helps us better understand the dark arts of constitutional law, an understudied practice in which written constitutions are used to build a centralised state.  This practice is grounded on a long normative tradition—dating back to Thomas Hobbes—arguing that centralisation is the best way to overcome civil war and achieve the common good.  This practice underpins the rise of authoritarian populism around the world today.  It also is increasingly infiltrating established democracies, posing a critical internal threat to democratic governance. 

William Partlett is an Associate Professor at Melbourne Law School. He writes and teaches in the field of public law.